Keystone Bluff Oak

by Tim Gilmore, 4/19/2021

The Democrat and Chronicle, the home newspaper of Rochester, New York, called Keystone Bluff “a scene of rare beauty” and “ideal Florida home.” J.H. Stedman, journalist, mentioned the poem affixed to the great tree by a “Mr. Bryant, the brother of William Cullen Bryant,” the giant of a poet, without saying which brother. This “wild garden scene” stood across from the center of Jacksonville. The story ran on March 15, 1896.

unknown old man looking down as he stands before the tree

“The grandest feature of this fairy-land,” Stedman wrote, “is a magnificent live oak that lifts its noble form in the open meadow” beyond the Cummings’s house.

Already, he’d described “a pretty ravine, dotted with the cypress, white gum and holly trees” and a “deer park,” where “one discovers their appealing eyes and graceful forms among the shrubbery.” The band had wandered the grounds, “picking violets and roses and fill[ing] our lungs with the fragrance of the jessamine and delight[ing] our eyes with the exquisite cherokee roses which run riot over the walls and hedges” and so on.

from The [Rochester, New York] Democrat and Chronicle, March 15, 1896

Stedman noted the copper plaque affixed to the trunk of “the grandest feature.” The tree’s “great branches,” he said, “draped with the soft gray Florida moss and tipped with living green, stretch out in every direction and give it a spread of 128 feet.”

When Wayne Wood, Joel McEachin and the members of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission chose to include the live oak among the thousands of instances of historic architecture in the 1986 book Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, they noted,

unknown old man looking up as he stands before the tree

“After the St. Johns River Bridge opened in 1921, it became a favorite destination for motor outings and picnics” and that “children from St. Johns Parish who were invited by Mary Packer Cummings to weekend parties on her estate often played there.”

The copper plaque long ago affixed and long ago stolen held these lines from Bryant’s “A Forest Hymn”—

William Cullen Bryant, journalist and poet, courtesy New York Evening Post

“This might oak,– / By whose immovable stem I stand and seem / Almost annihilated–not a prince, / In all that proud old world beyond the deep, / E’er wore his crown as loftily as he / Wears the green coronal of leaves with which / Thy hand has graced him.”

The lines carved into the mantel in the Cummings house, however, were original and custom-written:

“This mighty old oak for ages has stood; / His far-spreading branches o’er shadow a rood. / He’s the titular monarch, and king of the wood. /  O, long may he flourish, in sunshine and shower, / The emblem of majesty, beauty and power.”

from The [Rochester, New York] Democrat and Chronicle, March 15, 1896

Oh but many oaks across the city are older. Many oaks throughout Jacksonville are larger. The most significant fact about the Keystone Bluff Oak was not its age, nor its size. The most significant fact was not enough to keep Episcopal High School from knocking it down. As Wood and McEachin noted, “Although previously thought to be over 500 years old, modern growth-measurement techniques show it is about 200 years old.” Indeed the live oak in the back yard behind my house, never noted in occasional publications about the city’s great trees, is wider in both circumference and reach. So probably, says the arborist who trimmed it, are several hundred trees across the oldest parts of the city.

at least six unknown figures, William Cullen Bryant plaque between standing figures, date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

What made the Keystone Bluff Oak significant was the stories of how the Keystone Bluff Oak was significant, the history of those stories as they stretched back a century, and their visit, not by a famous poet, but by the brother, yes, the unnamed brother of the poet. And that particular old photograph with all the faces up in the tree. Students at Episcopal High School sometimes argued about how many faces they saw, then on nights after losing football games claimed they saw as they stood beneath the tree the number of faces they counted earlier in that old photo.